FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for March 2012: the University of Missouri – St. Louis.
The University of Cincinnati (UC) made headlines this month when a student group there filed a federal lawsuit challenging the university’s restrictive policy governing demonstrations, pickets, and rallies on campus. But UC is far from the only university to place onerous and unconstitutional restrictions on students’ right to express themselves on campus. At the University of Missouri – St. Louis, the “Demonstration” policy (.pdf) in the Student Organization Handbook provides that
If an organization wants to hold any type of rally, demonstration, or similar activities, they should contact the Student Affairs Office at least six (6) weeks’ before the event. Any organization holding a rally, demonstration, or similar event shall appoint four responsible students to act as marshals. It will be the duty of the marshals to ensure that all participants are properly instructed as to provisions of these regulations and that no action is performed which will discredit the student body or UM-St. Louis.
This policy suffers from several flaws. First, the six-week notice requirement completely denies students the ability to demonstrate or protest in response to unfolding events and deprives them of the immediacy of their message. Students are instead forced to wait an absurd amount of time before they can exercise their basic constitutional rights.
Second, the prohibition on demonstrations that “discredit the student body or UM-St. Louis” is hopelessly vague and overbroad, giving the administration total discretion to censor or punish controversial demonstrations on campus. If students want to protest what they perceive as wrongful actions by the UM-St. Louis administration, can this demonstration be shut down because it “discredits” the university? If students want to demonstrate in favor of marijuana legalization, might the administration decide that their pro-drug message “discredits” the student body?
Oddly, the same Student Organization Handbook has a statement referring to the university’s “open campus” policy wherein students and faculty “have the right to hear and express varying viewpoints,” including “the freedom to demonstrate in an orderly fashion.” However, there is no explanation of how this policy intersects with the extremely restrictive demonstration policy. If the university is to be an “open campus,” it must strike these onerous restrictions so that students can truly exercise their freedom to protest and demonstrate.
Students at the University of Cincinnati are now demanding that their university answer for its unconstitutional restrictions on their First Amendment rights to free expression and assembly. As a fellow public institution, the University of Missouri – St. Louis is equally responsible for upholding those rights, and it is failing to do so. For this reason, it is our March 2012 Speech Code of the Month.
If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. You also can add FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month Widget to your blog or website and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.